Rory McIlroy is taking "tons of positives" from his performance at the WGC Match Play and feels his game is in good shape heading into next month's Masters.

The world number two finished third at Austin Country Club on Sunday after winning six out of his seven matches.

McIlroy suffered disappointment in his semi-final with Cameron Young, however, as he lost from two up with three to play as the contest went to a play-off.

Despite that collapse, and a chance to face eventual winner Sam Burns in the final, the Northern Irishman is pleased with his form heading into the opening major of the year.

"There are tons of positives to take away," he said. "If you had told me I would make it to the Sunday of the Match Play last week I would have taken that.

"I am maybe going to go up [to Augusta National] for a day and mess around. I went last week but don't think there is any harm in going up again and then it's about practice.

"I don't think there is tons to do. I think my game is in really good shape so just keep it ticking over, work on the shots I need for Augusta and away we go."

McIlroy, who defeated Scottie Scheffler to finish third, will now turn focus to landing victory at Augusta and becoming the sixth man to complete a career Grand Slam.

He has landed seven top-10 finishes, but last year's second place is the closest McIlroy has come to adding to his PGA Championship, U.S. Open and Open Championship titles.

"I'm excited about how things are now compared to this time a couple weeks ago," McIlroy added. "I drove the ball a lot better this week and I felt pretty good with the putter.

"For the first week out I thought both ends of the bag worked pretty well. I don't think anything is in bad shape. I'll keep it ticking over and work on the shots I need for Augusta."

Sam Burns wiped the floor with Cameron Young to win the WGC Match Play final 6-5 on Sunday for his fifth PGA Tour victory.

Burns, who has all five of his wins since May 2021, first had to navigate his semi-final match-up against world number one and defending champion Scottie Scheffler, who was trying to become the first player to ever reach the final of this event in three straight seasons.

It looked like Burns' day from the jump as he flew out to a 3up lead through three holes, but Scheffler came roaring back by winning the fifth, sixth, eighth, ninth and 10th to carry a 2up lead of his own into the back-nine.

The seesawing contest saw Burns take the 13th and 15th to tie it up, and he pulled ahead with a birdie on 17, before Scheffler responded with a birdie on 18 to take it to extra holes.

Both players birdied the first extra hole and both banked pars on the second, before Burns punched his ticket to the final with a birdie on the third sudden-death hole.

The bracket was set up for Scheffler and Rory McIlroy to meet, and they did, but only for the third-place play-off after McIlroy also fell in a sudden-death loss to Young.

Young needed to win the 18th hole to tie things up, and he did so with a birdie, which he followed with a birdie on the extra hole to advance.

Burns made sure the final was far less competitive, dropping eight birdies over the course of 10 holes to race away to a dominant victory.

In the third-place playoff, McIlroy took the lead on the first hole and maintained the advantage throughout, and when Scheffler birdied the 12th to try and tie things up, McIlroy responded with an eagle to instead go 2up and take the 2-1 win.

Scottie Scheffler and Rory McIlroy are one win away from meeting in the WGC Match Play final after both advancing into the last four on Saturday.

In the first of four elimination rounds among the 16 group winners, Scheffler was matched up with J.T. Poston, and after trailing throughout the back-nine he won both the 17th and 18th to sneak by with a 1up victory.

He would meet the in-form Jason Day for a spot in the semi-finals after Day took a 1up win over Matt Kuchar, and after Day went 3up on the front-nine, Scheffler won five of the next eight holes to secure a 2 and 1 win.

Meanwhile, McIlroy started his day with a 2up triumph over Lucas Herbert, leading all the way, and he followed it with a hard-fought 1up win against Xander Schauffele, where he did not take his first lead until the final hole.

Scheffler will meet Sam Burns in the final four after Burns upset Patrick Cantlay 2 and 1, and then proved too good for Mackenzie Hughes in a 3 and 2 result.

McIlroy will have to navigate the challenge of Cameron Young to reach the final after his dominant 5 and 4 win over 2021 champion Billy Horschel, following it up with a 1up result against recent Arnold Palmer Invitational champion Kurt Kitayama.

With one more win Scheffler can become the first player in the history of the event – dating back to 1999 – to reach the final in three consecutive seasons, after winning in 2022 and finishing runner-up in 2021.

Jon Rahm was the major casualty from the WGC Match Play on Friday as Scottie Scheffler, Rory McIlroy and Patrick Cantlay all advanced with perfect records.

The Spanish second seed was dumped out after losing 5 and 4 to 2021 WGC Match Play winner Billy Horschel in their final Group 2 match at the Austin Country Club in Texas.

Horschel went 1-up with a par on the second hole and never relinquished the lead, with Rahm failing to register a birdie throughout the day's play.

The 36-year-old American pulled away with birdies on the 10th and 11th holes followed by a 21-foot birdie putt on the 14th to clinch a spot in the round of 16 against Cameron Young.

Horschel progressed in a tight group with a 2-0-1 record ahead of Rickie Fowler (2-1-0), Rahm (1-2-0) and Keith Mitchell (0-2-1).

Top seed and reigning champion Scheffler advanced after beating Tom Kim 3 and 2 to round out a 3-0-0 group stage record.

Kim came out strong with birdies on the first two holes to go 2-up, but Scheffler rallied back immediately winning three of the next four holes.

Third seed McIlroy topped Group 3 unblemished after beating Keegan Bradley 3 and 2, while fourth seed Cantlay beat Brian Harman 2 and 1 to top Group 4 with a 3-0-0 record.

Kurt Kitayama won a three-way sudden death playoff over Tony Finau and Adrian Meronk to progress atop Group 10.

Canadian Mackenzie Hughes produced an upset to advance via Group 12 from Taylor Montgomery who he beat 6 and 4. Jordan Spieth, who beat Hughes on Thursday, missed out after losing to Shane Lowry 2 and 1.

J.J. Spaun also pulled off a surprise by topping Group 11 with a 3-0-0 record, downing Min Woo Lee 2 and 1 to seal his progress.

Max Homa, Xander Schauffele, Andrew Putnam, Matt Kuchar, Sam Burns, Lucas Herbert, J.T. Poston, Jason Day and Young also all progressed into Saturday's last 16 knockout stage.

Defending champion Scottie Scheffler got off to a great start at the WGC Match Play, remaining perfect through his first two round-robin matchups after defeating Alex Noren on Thursday.

Scheffler, the world number one, has shown a great affinity for the match play format, finishing runner-up to Billy Horschel in 2021 before knocking off Kevin Kisner in last season's final.

After sneaking past Davis Riley to open his week, Scheffler put his foot down against Noren, draining six birdies over the course of eight holes to run away with it.

Scheffler will advance as the winner of Group 1 with a win or tie against Tom Kim on Friday, while Rory McIlroy also has one foot in the knockout stage after his win against Denny McCarthy, with only Keegan Bradley standing in the way of the Northern Irishman completing a perfect Group 3 sweep.

Max Homa is sitting pretty as the only 2-0-0 competitor in Group 5 after getting the better of three-time finalist Kevin Kisner, meaning he will face Hideki Matsuyama for a chance to seal his path into the last-16.

Tony Finau moved to 2-0-0 in Group 2 with a convincing triumph over Adrian Meronk, while Jason Day beat Victor Perez to take a 2-0-0 record into his tantalising Group 9 clash against the 1-0-1 Collin Morikawa. The loser will be heading home.

Group 2 is up for grabs as Jon Rahm (1-1-0) needs to defeat Horschel (1-0-1) to give himself and Rickie Fowler (1-1-0) a chance to advance, while Jordan Spieth blew a late lead to hand control over Group 12 to Taylor Montgomery.

Xander Schauffele, J.T Poston, Kim Si-woo, Sam Burns, Cameron Young, Andrew Putnam, J.J. Spaun and Lucas Herbert are all unbeaten heading into Friday's final round of group play.

Rory McIlroy supports the controversial proposals that would see new golf balls introduced to tackle ever-increasing driving distances.

The R&A and United States Golf Association (USGA) last week proposed a "Model Local Rule" that would allow organisers and tournaments the option to use a modified ball that reduces hitting distance by approximately 15 yards.

The move was first mooted in 2020 as a way of decreasing the distance modern tour professionals hit the ball amid fears golf courses will soon not be long enough to provide a suitable test in elite competitions. 

The proposals have been met with widespread criticism from manufacturers and players alike, with Justin Thomas last week describing the move as "so bad for the game of golf."

However, four-time major champion McIlroy, who is currently playing at the World Golf Championships Match Play in Texas, is not so angry. 

Speaking to No Laying Up, he said: "For elite-level play, I really like it. I really do.

"I know that's a really unpopular opinion amongst my peers, but I think it's going to help identify who the best players are a bit easier. Especially in this era of parity that we've been living in these past couple of decades.

"Selfishly, I think it helps me. I think this is only going to help the better player. It might help the longer player too, in some ways but I think it's going to help the overall professional game. 

"I think making guys hit some long irons again, and some mid irons, and being able to hit every club in your bag in a round of golf.… I can't remember the last time when I've had to do that. 

"I don't know if this change in the ball will make us do that, but it certainly is a step closer to that."

Martin Slumbers and Mike Whan, the heads of the respective organisations, confirmed the rule would not be implemented until 2026 but would then be introduced for their elite events – the Open Championship and the U.S. Open.

There is no obligation for the PGA Tour to adopt the rules, but McIlroy suggested he might still consider using a rolled-back ball in regular-season events to better prepare for the majors. 

"Honestly, for me, the major championships are the biggest deal, so if the PGA Tour doesn't implement it, I might still play the Model Local Rule ball, because I know that'll give me the best chance and the best preparation leading into the major championships," he added. 

"And again, this is personal preference and personal opinion at this stage of my career. I know that I'm going to be defined by the amount of major championships that I hopefully will win from now until the end of my career. And that's the most important thing for me.

"If that gives me the best chance to succeed at the major championships and feel as prepared as I possibly can be, then that's what I would do."

Rory McIlroy missed the cut at The Players Championship on Saturday and pointed the finger at his off-course political workload, saying: "I'd love to get back to being a golfer."

The Northern Irishman, a talisman for the PGA Tour, has been a strong and vocal opponent of the LIV Golf series that has attracted a host of the world's leading players.

With LIV being a Saudi-backed series, questions have been asked about why players would sign up for a tour that critics consider an attempt at sportswashing due to that country's human rights record.

McIlroy has been working closely with top-level golf officials to improve the appeal of the US-based PGA Tour, with a revamped calendar for 2024 set to include eight additional no-cut tournaments, which it is hoped will prove attractive to anyone with wavering support.

Having an eye on the business side has affected his golf, though, the 33-year-old believes, and McIlroy bowed out at TPC Sawgrass after a delayed finish to the second round, which was affected by bad weather on Friday.

McIlroy agreed after his round when asked if it was fair to say the added responsibilities had taken their toll.

"Yeah, it is fair. I'd love to get back to being a golfer," he said. "It's been a busy couple of weeks, and honestly it's been a busy six or eight months.

"But as I said at the start of the week, everything has sort of been announced now, and the wheels have been put in motion, so it should obviously quieten down from here."

He followed an opening 76 with a 73 in round two, missing the cut by three shots at the flagship tour event.

McIlroy said his week had been "just very blah".

"You just have to be really on to play well here," he added. "If you're a little off, it definitely magnifies where you are off. It's a bit of an enigma. Some years I come here, and it feels easier than others. It's just a tricky golf course."

McIlroy said he would head to Augusta for "a couple of days" next week to familiarise himself with the Georgia course ahead of the Masters, which begins on April 6.

"I actually don't feel like I'm playing that badly at all," said the world number three. "A few miscues here and there, I putted it off the sixth green yesterday, and just stuff that was a little untidy here and there. But I hit the ball okay."

Canadian Adam Svensson held the 36-hole lead on nine under par after a 67, with American Scottie Scheffler second following a second-round 69, putting him two behind. Four players shared third on six under ahead of the third round getting under way: Ben Griffin, Min Woo Lee, Christiaan Bezuidenhout and Collin Morikawa.

The Floridian fairways and greens of Sawgrass are in a splendid state ahead of the Players Championship, but the same can hardly be said for professional golf as a whole.

Riven by conflict and division, the turbulence of the last year is reflected by who is absent this week. The defending champion, Cameron Smith, for starters.

A defector to LIV Golf, drawn in by a staggering signing-on fee of reportedly $100million, Smith traded his parking spot and right to practise at Sawgrass, his local course, for the Saudi bounty.

It would be difficult for anybody to turn down such riches, so rather than sit in judgement of the 29-year-old Australian it is a timely moment to look at where the sport finds itself, with the PGA Tour battling to retain talent.

Notorious LIV? Mo money, mo problems

Is the LIV tour really the black-hearted enemy to golf that some would portray it as? It obviously would say not, and its tour chiefs, headed by CEO Greg Norman, have mounted passionate defences of the splinter series that has put up huge sums to draw in many of the world's elite.

Golf can be a short-lived career for stars at the highest level, so young players may see an opportunity to make quick money and instantly set themselves up for life.

Those at the opposite end, who have made phenomenal money already but are perhaps seeing diminishing returns, have been handed opportunities to cash in on their big profiles for a late-career pay day. Look to the likes of Phil Mickelson, Sergio Garcia, Ian Poulter and Lee Westwood in this regard.

Would those in the middle be quite so tempted? The PGA Tour would hope they might show loyalty after being well served, so it will have particularly hurt to see the likes of Brooks Koepka, Dustin Johnson, Patrick Reed and Bryson DeChambeau make the leap across.

Norman has argued LIV is "unlocking potential", claiming in a News Nation interview in January that golf "has been stuck in a box for 53 years". 

Australian Norman also took criticism for declaring that "we've all made mistakes", when he defended the Saudi regime last year, responding to the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The fact LIV is bankrolled by the Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF) has sparked suggestions golf is being manipulated for sportswashing purposes, and those claims are not going away.

How has the PGA Tour responded?

When the weapon in a fight is money, you have to find more of it to keep the troops happy.

The PGA Tour has hiked up prize funds at eight key events this season. Among these is The Players, where it has leapt from $20m last year to a $25m purse this week.

That announcement came last June. As recently as last week, though, the PGA Tour confirmed it would introduce designated events with limited fields and no cuts from 2024, in what it hopes is a compelling move to fend off more LIV defections.

Tour commissioner Jay Monahan described the eight 'no-cut' events for 2024 as "can't-miss tournaments", with players able to earn places through the regular tour season.

LIV Golf reacted to the announcement by stating on Twitter: "Imitation is the greatest form of flattery. Congratulations PGA Tour. Welcome to the future."

The PGA Tour insists there are striking differences, with the opportunity for players to earn spots through year-round competition, rather than being guaranteed a place week-in, week-out.

Tiger Woods has spoken of this being a "very turbulent" period for golf, but he remains committed to the PGA Tour, with the 47-year-old American said to have turned down an offer of around $700m to $800m.

Rory McIlroy is firmly opposed to LIV taking over, too, and the PGA Tour has kept a host of household names – the likes of Jon Rahm, Scottie Scheffler, Xander Schauffele and Patrick Cantlay – while others have slipped away.

Looking at the no-cut events, McIlroy has said major sponsors "want a guarantee that the stars are there", and blue-chip investment will be essential if the PGA Tour is to keep raising prize pots.

"If that's what needs to happen, then that's what happens," the Northern Irishman added.

What next? Will others jump ship?

The LIV tour has expanded to become a 14-event season, running from last month's opening tournament in Mayakoba, Mexico, through to the November finale in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

Eight of those events will take place in the United States, including the March 17-20 Tucson tournament.

It has a US TV deal now, with CW Network. The major sport networks have not picked it up yet, but this marks a significant stepping stone.

By next year, it may even be awarding ranking points, although that is far from certain to come to pass.

There will be LIV players allowed to compete at the Masters next month, and they are set to be able to compete at all four majors, while remaining exiled from the PGA Tour and Europe's DP World Tour, and quite possibly the Ryder Cup.

Chile's Mito Pereira and Colombian Sebastian Munoz have moved across from the PGA Tour this year, and the question is whether any more notable names will also be tempted.

Cantlay, who was rumoured to be considering a switch to LIV last season, said the no-cut PGA Tour step would "make the Tour stronger and put an emphasis on those weeks".

What about this week? It's a mess, isn't it?

Smith's absence is a tough one for the Players Championship to swallow. Organisers have been unable to herald the champion's return, and Smith would sooner be involved than on the outside, but he made his choice and this is the consequence.

In fact, last year's top three are all LIV-ing it up these days, with Anirban Lahiri and Paul Casey consequently not involved this week either.

Smith lives just down the road, and he told Golf.com he would "definitely be watching on TV", hinting he could even turn up to watch.

"I grew up my whole childhood watching the event and yeah I'd love to get out there," Smith said.

"I don't know how it would kind of be received, but getting out there and watching, walking around in the crowd, might be pretty funny."

In a serious, big-bucks business, there would be a sense of pantomime to that happening, and it seems unlikely Smith will roll up. But then this all seemed unlikely two years ago, and here we are.

Jon Rahm is a fan of the PGA Tour's recent changes to their schedule and prize money, and gave credit to LIV Golf during Tuesday's pre-tournament press conference at The Players Championship.

Rahm, who had won five of his previous nine events before last week's disappointment at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, has been the undisputed hottest player in golf this season.

With that form has come the title of world number one, as well as a nice boost to his bank account, having already won two of the four new 'elevated' events to take place so far on the PGA Tour calendar this year. He collected $2.7million for taking out the Sentry Tournament of Champions, and another $3.6m with his title at The Genesis Invitational.

The prize purses in those events have almost doubled since their designation as elevated events, designed to attract the tour's top players to the flagship tournaments – with 44 of the world's top 50 teeing it up at Bay Hill last week.

When asked what he thinks was the driving force behind the PGA Tour's recent innovations – including the announced no-cut events to debut next season – Rahm said it was obvious.

"Oh, it's LIV Golf," he said. "I mean, without a doubt. Without LIV Golf, this wouldn’t have happened.

"So to an extent, like I've said before, we should be thankful this threat has made the PGA Tour want to change things. 

"I think I said it last week, as well. I wish it didn’t come to the PGA Tour being, you know, under fire from somebody else to make those changes and make things better for the players, but I guess it is what we needed. 

"So, yeah, it is because of LIV Golf, otherwise we wouldn't have seen any of this."

While Rahm is thankful for the competition and the effects they have had, and has no hard feelings towards those who chose to jump ship, he reiterated that the PGA Tour is clearly the home of the most exciting and competitive golf.

"If you're not happy with the product, [LIV Golf signees] are free to do as they choose," he said. "I still think that the PGA Tour is the best platform for professional golfers. 

"Obviously they’re very different products and they differ in a lot of things, but it's not the same. Like I’ve said before, I’m not one to tell people what to do with their life and with their career. 

"I do think the changes that are happening are very positive – very, very positive. It’s only going to make it so, you know, the better players in the world play together more often, which at the end of the day is what the fans want to see."

His comments were similar to those from Rory McIlroy earlier this week, saying LIV Golf's presence forced the PGA Tour to reassess their "antiquated" format.

"I'm not going to sit here and lie; I think the emergence of LIV or the emergence of a competitor to the PGA Tour has benefitted everyone that plays elite professional golf," he said.

"When you've been the biggest golf league in the biggest market in the world for the last 60 years, there's not a lot of incentive to innovate.

"This has caused a ton of innovation at the PGA Tour, and what was quite, I would say, an antiquated system is being revamped to try to mirror where we're at in the world in the 21st century with the media landscape."

Rory McIlroy claimed the emergence of the LIV Golf Invitational Series "has benefitted everyone that plays elite professional golf" and whipped the PGA Tour into shape after years of being mired in an "antiquated" existence.

The Northern Irishman was not changing his tune and singing the praises of the Saudi-backed series, but he believes it has served as a timely jolt for the US-based PGA Tour, shaking it from a long stupor.

Ahead of this week's Players Championship at Sawgrass, McIlroy was part of a player meeting with PGA Tour bosses on Tuesday in which details of eight newly designated no-cut tournaments for next season were explained.

The limited-field events have sparked mockery from players on the LIV circuit, who have accused the PGA Tour of mimicking the breakaway series after previously being so critical.

There have also been suggestions of concerns from within the PGA Tour ranks that players with tour cards will be frozen out of the biggest events, making it a clear two-tier tour.

McIlroy, who has been heavily involved in strategy meetings, does not agree and believes there is ample opportunity for players to perform well and earn a place in the elite events, pointing out there would be 29 full-field tournaments next year.

He felt Tuesday's meeting had helped the sceptics, saying: "I think when more information and data was presented to them, the people that maybe had reservations about it I think came around, or at least were more informed on their opinions.

"I think the temperature in the room was nowhere near as hot as I anticipated it to be once the information was laid out."

McIlroy said players wanted to be convinced "that there's enough jeopardy built into the system". He admitted a previous meeting, held in Delaware last August, had been "very self-serving for the 20 players in that room", with tour chiefs talking them down and ensuring more flexibility was built into line-up potential for the no-cut events.

The world number three confirmed fields of around 50 players had been proposed at one point, with only 10 players dropping out each year. Now these lucrative tournaments will see 70 to 80 players involved.

"You know Tiger Woods won 26 no-cut events in his career, right. There's always been no-cut events," McIlroy said. "Jack Nicklaus won 20 no-cut events. Arnold Palmer won 17.

"There's precedent for no-cut events. The cuts that you have to make to get into those events, so making the play-offs, getting into the top 50, there's certain things that you have to do to qualify for those events. I think that's more than fair to warrant eight events a year that are guaranteeing the players four days."

McIlroy has been as vocal as anybody in opposing the LIV series, with the 33-year-old scathing about many of the players who have taken the tens of millions on offer.

Given its Saudi backing, and criticism of that country's human rights record, the LIV series has been cited by many critics as an attempt at sportswashing.

Superstars including Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson, Sergio Garcia, Brooks Koepka and Bryson DeChambeau have joined LIV Golf, and the PGA Tour is determined to fend off the threat of any more luminaries leaving.

Cameron Smith, last year's champion at Sawgrass, is another who has taken the LIV money, and consequently will be absent from the field this week.

Asked how much of the change happening on the PGA Tour now, with prize money soaring, could be attributed to LIV's encroachment, McIlroy said: "A lot of it. I'm not going to sit here and lie; I think the emergence of LIV or the emergence of a competitor to the PGA Tour has benefitted everyone that plays elite professional golf.

"When you've been the biggest golf league in the biggest market in the world for the last 60 years, there's not a lot of incentive to innovate.

"This has caused a ton of innovation at the PGA Tour, and what was quite, I would say, an antiquated system is being revamped to try to mirror where we're at in the world in the 21st century with the media landscape.

"The PGA Tour isn't just competing with LIV Golf or other sports. It's competing with Instagram and TikTok and everything else that's trying to take eyeballs away from the PGA Tour as a product.

"LIV coming along has definitely had a massive impact on the game, but I think everyone who's a professional golfer is going to benefit from it going forward."

Rory McIlroy applauded Kurt Kitayama's maiden PGA Tour victory after the pair were split by a single stroke at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

The Northern Irishman tied for second alongside Harris English at eight under as Kitayama finally ended his runners-up hoodoo to claim victory at Bay Hill Club and Lodge.

After three near-misses on the tour in 2022, including a one-stroke loss to McIlroy at the CJ Cup, Kitayama's victory saw him rewarded for his perseverance.

Speaking afterwards, McIlroy was happy to sing the praises of his fellow player, while acknowledging he was frustrated to have come up shy after just missing his putt at the final hole.

"I think [Kitayama] has been playing pretty well," McIlroy said. "He's sort of persevered and played wherever he could get starts.

"All of a sudden, he's won one of the biggest events on the PGA Tour, so good for him.

"It's disappointing. To play the final five holes in one over par, with this jam-packed leaderboard, isn't really going to get it done.

"It was a battle all day. I felt like I hung in there really well and just came up one short in the end."

Kitayama qualified for The Open with his victory and will hope to finally have an impact on a major. He was tied for 72nd last year.

"Last year was special, with it being at St Andrews," he said. "The Open Championship is a really cool experience.

"I haven't done well, but I've just got to try to keep getting myself back in it and keep getting better."

Kurt Kitayama made sure his 50th start on the PGA Tour would be one he never forgets after winning the Arnold Palmer Invitational by one stroke on Sunday with a final score of nine under.

Kitayama, 30, is in his seventh season after making his debut in the 2016-17 campaign, and he finally earned his first PGA Tour victory to go with two wins on the European Tour and one Asian Tour triumph.

It was far from smooth sailing, with a catastrophic triple-bogey on the ninth hole ruining Kitayama's bright start to his final trip around Bay Hill, taking him from a two-stroke lead at 11 under, back to one behind the leaders.

But he kept his composure, rattling off seven pars in a row to begin his back nine, before what ended up being the tournament-winning birdie on the tricky par-three 17th.

Rory McIlroy and Harris English both had birdie putts on the 18th to reach nine under, but could not convert, meaning Kitayama just needed a par on the last to secure the win.

He left himself with a long two-putt for the title, and he almost made it in one, coming up an inch short to set up a tap-in par.

Illustrating how difficult the course played over the weekend, Kitayama was nine under through two rounds, and finished with back-to-back 72s as the field failed to chase him down.

McIlroy briefly tasted the outright lead after Kitayama's triple and Jordan Spieth's late collapse, but the Northern Irishman's seven birdies were balanced out by five bogeys, including two in a row on the 14th and 15th while he was out in front.

He finished tied for second at eight under with English, who was the only player in the field to finish with no bogeys on Saturday or Sunday.

Spieth found himself at 10 under through 13, but imploded with three bogeys over his next four to tie for fourth at seven under with Patrick Cantlay, Scottie Scheffler and Tyrell Hatton.

After a five-over outing on Saturday, Davis Riley bounced back with a 66 for the round of the day, catapulting him into an unlikely top-10 finish at six under.

Kurt Kitayama recovered from a double-bogey to remain the outright leader after three rounds of the Arnold Palmer Invitational, but a star-studded chasing pack is well within reach.

Kitayama led by two strokes coming into his third trip around Bay Hill, but he did well to salvage an even-par 72 to stay at nine under after four birdies on the back-nine.

His lead was trimmed to one, with world number two and defending champion Scottie Scheffler joined by Viktor Hovland in a tie for second at eight under.

Hovland was one of three competitors to shoot the round of the day, with a bogey-free 66, while Scheffler had a four-under day with seven birdies and three bogeys.

Alone in fourth at seven under is Tyrell Hatton, who matched Hovland's bogey-free 66 after rounds of 71 and 72, while world number three Rory McIlroy is joined by Harris English at six under in a tie for fifth.

Close friends Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth will likely be paired together for the final round after joining Pierceson Coody – the day's third 66 – in a tie for seventh at five under.

Max Homa and Cameron Young are still in the hunt at four under, while top-10 talents Patrick Cantlay and Xander Schauffele headline the logjam at three under.

 

Max Homa is seeking his third title of the PGA Tour season after taking the outright lead into the weekend at the Genesis Invitational, while Tiger Woods also made the cut.

Homa followed his opening 64 with a three-under 68 on his second trip around Riviera Country Club, finishing his round at 10 under overall after a bogey on 18.

Currently ranked a career-high 12th in the world, Homa has a chance to break into the top-10 for the first time with another strong result.

Meanwhile, Woods' putter let him down as he posted a three over round, but despite three bogeys from his final four holes, he snuck in right on the cut-line at one over.

One stroke behind Homa at nine under are the trio of Jon Rahm, Keith Mitchell and Lee Hodges, with Hodges the only player to shoot a 66 or better on Friday.

Collin Morikawa is alone in fifth at eight under, Patrick Cantlay is the only player at seven under, while Rory McIlroy (six under) and Will Zalatoris (five under) also find themselves in the top-10.

World number one Scottie Scheffler is one further back at four under, and former world number one Jason Day clawed his way back into contention with a 67 to sit at three under.

The shot of the day came from world number six Xander Schauffele, who was two strokes outside the cut-line before a slam-dunk eagle on the par-five 17th, making it through on the number.

Tiger Woods was battling a combination of overflowing adrenaline and rust as he made his return to the course for Thursday's opening round of the Genesis Invitational.

Woods birdied his first hole, but struggled with some makeable putts soon after, dropping to one over by the time he reached the 15th hole.

From that point on it was like the Tiger of old, collecting a two on the par-three 16th, drilling a long birdie putt on the par-five 17th, and placing a beautiful approach on the 18th to set-up his third birdie in a row to finish.

Reflecting on his performance afterwards, Woods said he felt the pressure to sink the final birdie.

"I didn't want to be the idiot host to miss it right in front of everybody after I just went birdie-birdie," he said with a smile. "It was a great round."

Playing alongside two-time major champion Justin Thomas and renowned long-driver Rory McIlroy, Woods said he even surprised himself as he out-drove his partners on a few occasions.

"There's nothing like come game time, just the feeling of the butterflies and trying to calm all that stuff down," he said. "Even though it's cold out here, [the ball] was going even further than we expected. I had to dial all that back in.

"I was trying to calm myself down all day, trying to figure out what the hell I'm doing out here, because I haven't played."

The 15-time major champion gave some insight into his ever-changing physical condition, saying he never knows what to expect out of his damaged ankle.

"My ankle's a lot smaller than it has been," he said. "I've had so many surgeries that the ankle just keeps changing, the leg keeps changing, yes, the shoes keep changing, the socks keep changing. 

"Everything's a moving target. How much I'm on my feet, how much I'm not, how active I am, how not active, the muscles that are on, they're off. It's a moving target all the time."

While the high quality of play was a joy to behold, so was the camaraderie between the featured group, and Woods said that is something he has missed.

"The ebb and flow of needling each other, encouraging each other and telling stories," he said. "I hadn't been out here, so I've missed some of the things that have transpired on tour, which is kind of fun."

It was fun for McIlroy as well, who finished the day tied for seventh at four under, although he admitted he did not enjoy seeing Woods' drives travel past his.

"I'm going to work on the range," McIlroy said. "I don't like him hitting it by me."

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